What the Gates Foundation and these schools' other supporters recognize is that if they want quality graduates, they don't have time to wait for governments to solve schools' problems. "Today's economy and the demands of the work world now require students to master the application of ... fundamentals learned in the classroom," Gary Jacobs said when the Gates grant was announced. "There's a pressing need for small, focused schools that use business partnerships and technology to strengthen teaching and learning and offer today's students real-world educational opportunities."
Not everyone is thrilled with having to rely on business groups to support such programs, whether they are new schools like the High Tech High clones or community-based endeavors like PowerUP. Some critics question, for instance, why the Internet access and other perks PowerUP offers should be delivered at a community center, rather than through the neutral medium of a school, or, in High Tech High's case, wonder about the effect of having classrooms named for their sponsors like today's sports arenas. Still, it's hard to find anyone who will admit to having real qualms about how the best-known programs are working out so far. "If these [programs] adhere to state standards, they can be a real plus," says Jamie Horwitz, a spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers. "We actively encourage companies and organizations to develop [programs] that tie into" existing local standards, he says.
Nevertheless, Horwitz says school administrators have to be vigilant. If a business offers a program that doesn't fit well with local standards, he says, it could "take away from valuable class time that could be used to teach subjects that are really necessary for students." Horwitz also urges teachers and administrators to keep an eye out to ensure that their students are not exploited by local businesses.
There is no denying that the promise of a better trained workforce is one of the main attractions for the companies that take part in such efforts. "They are interested in the bottom line," says Dr. Robert E. Anastasi, a former principal and executive director of the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education in Montgomery County, Maryland. They want to know "what you are going to do to improve the skills of the people showing up for work."
Such fears are not news to the majority of the businesses that take part, however, and most insist they have drawn up rules to ensure that their programs complement local curricula, rather than compete with them. Also, most businesses insist that their programs often lead to better scores in core subject areas, as well as in science and technology.